In the morning I’ve been jogging around the Back Cove Trail. It is gorgeous. The mornings are often foggy and I never tire of the sight of egrets strutting majestically through the grasses or perching on the little outcroppings of rock that are revealed when the tide is low. I am in awe of how different the landscape is from day to day: how on some mornings the water comes right up to the edge of the rocks below the trail and you can see the thick grass below the surface, waving with the gentle motion of the water; and on others the rocks are dry and for 10 or 15 feet those same are grasses standing tall in the sun, and waving gently in the morning breeze.
I like to just be in my own head on these outings, observing my surroundings, thinking my own thoughts, so unlike many people that I see on the trail, I don’t listen to music or podcasts. I try to just be in the moment with the landscape and the wind, and to go wherever my mind takes me as I go around the trail..
One morning I found myself noticing that lingering somewhere below my enjoyment of the cool Maine air on my skin there was an undercurrent of observation that was happening continuously as I made my way along the trail. Whenever someone approached me, either passing me from behind or coming towards me in the opposite direction, I would make an instantaneous subconscious judgement of how best to react to them.
It was not a conscious thought, just a whisper, just below the surface.
Some people I would make eye contact with and say “Good Morning,” or nod and smile. Others I would passively cast down my eyes and pass silently. It wasn’t as if I made a real decision with these reactions. It was almost instinctual and as I brought the fact that I was doing it to the forefront of my mind, I decided to tune into the murmur and figure out what I was doing..
When I paid close attention, I realized that every time a person would approach, I could feel my heartbeat amp up and my stomach clench, just slightly.
If it was a woman I would feel immediately calm and smile or nod.
If is was a man, my reaction was more complicated.
Is he looking at me? How fast is he going? What is he wearing?
Older guy in slacks walking a standard poodle. “Good morning.”
Young guy, strong, jogging. Look down. Don’t want to seem too friendly.
Guy 50 feet ahead stretching out his leg on the fence. Will he finish stretching before I get over there and get back on the trail? Why is he still stretching? Is he waiting for me? Don’t look at him as I run past, pick up the pace a bit and give him a wide berth.
Guy jogging with a stroller. Smile. “Good morning.”
I am not making these calls at the front of my mind. I am taking in the gorgeous pure-white wings of the egrets and noting the mile markers as I pass them and feeling the glorious breeze on my skin and making a mental list of everything that I need to accomplish with my impossibly short day. But somewhere, underneath it all is a constant process of observing and accessing each person and the risk they might present.
I started to reflect on when could have this started. And I remembered a day, when I was maybe 7 or 8, when a friend and I walked over to the Grand Union Shopping Center to get some candy. I think it is possible that we were going to put our 2 pennies into the gumball machine in front of Foedish to get a handful of that flat square gum that would stain our teeth and taste like nothing after 22.5 seconds.
As we walked innocently on our way, a man approached us and offered us a ride in his car. He seemed old to me. He had a mustache. I think he might have been wearing a red cap and I think he he had a red baseball-style jacket that was kind of worn.
I remember that he told us that his car was really cool.
I don’t think we said anything. I think we looked at each other, silently agreed that we were in danger, and took off running. We ran all the way back to her house in a blind panic without stopping. I remember the grip of the terror I had that this man would follow us.
I am not sure what I thought he might do. I just knew that we were not safe and I ran for my life. I don’t think my friend and I told any adults what happened. I’m not sure if we even discussed it afterwards.
And it seems to me that this is pretty much how I have walked through the world ever since. I remember clearly the feeling I had walking around my neighborhood as a kid, which was a “safe” and quiet place: the horrifying feeling I would get in the pit of my stomach if I heard footsteps behind me.
I would pick up my pace and listen intently to see if the footsteps increased speed too.
Strain my ears to determine if they had turned a corner, silently hoping they might pass in front of me.
Ruminate about whether I should look back and let them know that I know they’re there or keep walking casually as fast as I can until I get to safety.
The flood of relief when they would turn and I knew they weren’t actually following me. The way I would breathe for the first time.
When I was in my early 20’s and living in Manhattan, I would get off of the train at Times Square after work to get to my Hell’s Kitchen apartment. I passed this guy every day, who wore a sandwich board for Leg’s Diamond, a strip Club nearby. He always said “Hello” to me when I passed and I would always greet him in return, careful not to be too friendly, but not to be a “bitch” either. This went on for months and months and somehow our salutation shifted and he started giving me a hug when I passed.
I vividly remember being appalled and skittish the first time it happened and I remember my brain frantically running through the potential reactions I could have and their possible results.
If I recoiled and acted disgusted he could be offended and become angry.
If I lingered in the hug and smiled that would definitely send the wrong message and put me at serious risk.
I decided the best way to handle this was a quick business like hello everyday, letting him embrace me for a second and then walking quickly, assertively home.
I felt like this said clearly, “I don’t think I’m better than you at all and I am not afraid of you. I have a lot I have to do and this moment means nothing to me at all.” I would feel the hollowness of heightened awareness in my stomach when we went through this each day and I would quickly head home, not too fast, not too slow, while he continued to stand on his corner with his bright yellow sign.
And then, one day, out of the blue, he followed me.
At first I told myself that I was being crazy. He couldn’t possibly be following me.
I listened. I glanced backward.
He was definitely following me.
I walked faster.
He couldn’t possibly leave his territory, could he? He’s working, right?!!
I heard him shout something at me but I couldn’t hear what it was.
When I reached 9th Avenue and thought about how far from his usual spot we were and glanced back and saw him still there behind me, I entered into a full panic.
I fled as fast as I could.
He ran after me.
I heard him yell, “Why are you running away from me?”.
When I got to my apartment I ran inside, locked the door behind me, and collapsed on the couch in tears. It was dark before I calmed down and my heart stopped pounding.
I started taking the train past my apartment to 57th street and walking from there. I never got off the train at 42nd street again.
There have been countless episodes where I have gone into full fight or flight mode, only to end up feeling ridiculous because the threat I detected turned out to be nothing at all.
But there are all of the other moments when I’ve let my vigilance down and gotten out of my head or smiled too readily or found myself all of a sudden alone with someone who does not seem to have my best interest at heart.
The moments that reinforce that vigilance and keep me constantly at the ready.
As I rounded another curve of the Back Cove, I thought of a frustrating recurring discussion I have with my husband, and have had with other men in my life. I will find myself describing in detail the thoughts that I am having as I have them, while he infuriatingly sits there impassively and silent. I will invariably ask in exasperation “What are you thinking right now?” and he will invariably wearily tell me,
This response always send me into a rage! How is it possible to be thinking about nothing?!!!
I have a running monologue going through my head every second of every day observing people and my surroundings, making running judgements of my options and the smartest way for me to move through the world.
What do you mean that you have NOTHING in your head right now? Are you shitting me?!!!
And in this run, which is my “me” time, where I get away from it all and give myself time to concentrate on nothing but the sun burning the fog off of the water and the crunch of the gritty trail beneath my feet, all the while keeping track of everyone in my area, it dawns on me that maybe men do get to think about absolutely nothing.
Maybe that is one of the privileges of being a white man walking through the world– to know what it feels like to have your mind completely at peace, to be completely in your own moment without a thought for what might go wrong.
Maybe the workings of my mind have been transformed by an endless cascade of traumas, some big and some small. Maybe the mechanics of my brain have been altered by the constant necessity of noting the location of the exits and scanning my surroundings.
Maybe a lifetime of experiences, accumulated over a lifetime of walking around in a female body, has trained me to always be aware and to never ever let down my guard.
Is it possible that living life as a woman has turned me into a soldier on a battlefield, constantly evaluating the potential for threat and determining when I should confidently stride forward and when I should retreat.
Are women marching through life as ever vigilant warriors, while men are empowered to drift silently toward shore on a beautifully serene sea?
Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus?
I think that it might actually be the opposite.
Jack is upset. “My mouth hurts Mommy! And there’s a bump!”
“Can you show me where baby?”
He takes my finger and places it on a wet, tender-firm lump all the way in the back of his mouth. Immediately, I am transported back to memories of teething babies. Those little swellings would form, followed soon after by sharp, ridgy dots of white, visible on smooth pink gums. Aaron and I would run our fingers over the ridges, fascinated by the tiny tooth emerging.
“It’s a tooth!” I told Jack excitedly.
I did not expect him to burst into tears.
Nervously, I begin to ramble, trying to make it better. “No Sweetie. This is so exciting! “You’re getting a molar! Those are the big teeth all of the way in the back of your mouth! Your molars are your grownup teeth! So, you know what this means?!!!”
He shakes his head slowly, sniffling, his face wet with tears, nose running.
“Your other grown-up teeth are coming! All of your baby teeth are going to get loose and fall out and your grown-up teeth will come in! The bump on your gums means that this will probably happen really soon! You get to put the teeth under your pillow!” I struggle to keep my upbeat tone though I am distracted by how bizarre my “reassurance” sounds.
Jacks eyes grow wide. His face is pale.”Will it hurt?” he asks.
“Maybe a tiny bit. ”
My voice takes on this high-pitched, falsely chipper tone. I sound insane to myself.
“Mostly it’s kind of fun. I remember wiggling my teeth back and forth all day long. And it would hurt a teeny bit, but for some reason I kind of liked it and I just couldn’t resist pushing it with my tongue more and more and more, until it would just pop out! And then you get to put your tooth under your pillow and the tooth fairy comes and takes it away! And she just might leave you some money!”
Jack starts shaking and crying so violently that he can hardly breathe.
“I like the teeth I have!” he moans, “I want to keep them!”
I’d never thought terribly hard about this process before, but with each excited word I uttered,as I desperately tried to drum up Jack’s enthusiasm (Who doesn’t want to lose a tooth?!!!) it became clearer and clearer how terrifying bizarre it actually is–
sharp edges of bone
bursting through tender gums.
the slight taste of blood in your mouth.
the exhilarating sting
as you tease a piece of your body,
once rooted reliably
to simply detach.
My shoulders tense as my mind fills suddenly with images of the tooth dreams that have plagued me for years. A quick google search reveals that dreams of teeth are common and completely unoriginal anxiety dreams. Common they may be, but mine are painfully vivid and leave me wide awake, filled panic and horror and deep shame.
What I always think of as my first tooth dream,though technically more of a “gum dream”, is seared permanently on my mind.
I remember sitting up breathlessly in our house on Van Vorst St, in the room I shared with my sister. I frantically examined every corner of my mouth with my tongue to reassure myself that the dream was not real. I remember focussing my eyes on the familiar sight of Molly asleep in her bed surrounded by stuffed animals, to calm myself.
But most of all, I remember the details of the dream.
I can see it still.
It is a sunny, summer day. I am walking slowly down the path in front of our house when all of a sudden my mouth feels full.
there is this terrifying pulpy presence in my mouth.
this odd sense of emerging bulk.
heavy, wet, alarming.
I push the damp mass from my mouth with my tongue and I watch it fall heavily to the sidewalk.
Lying there is a large, pink chunk of my gums, mesmerizingly moist and spongy. It glistens in the sun, like a dropped chunk of watermelon.
I take another step and again my mouth is full. Again I spit out a wet hunk of flesh. It happens with each step and I remember reaching the end of the pathway, where our front walk met up with the sidewalk, and looking back at the ghastly wet trail leading up to the front porch and feeling overtaken by terror.
Over the years I have had similar dreams regularly. In them I am invariably in a place where I am supposed to seem normal and responsible– work, a family function– when I notice, to my horror, that one of my teeth is loose. The discovery is always marked by horror and shame that mounts as I find myself unable to leave the tooth alone. I can’t stop fiddling with it with my tongue, both repulsed and fascinated by the way it gradually becomes looser and looser until suddenly,
it just breaks free.
It’s no longer a part of me,
but a hard wet presence in my mouth.
A terrible object with smooth sides
and sharp edges
that slice my tongue.
There is always an awkwardness in the dream as I try to figure out what to do with the tooth and how to hide the mortifying gap in my mouth.
The alien feeling of the toothless gap,
deep and empty and vulnerable,
a part of you never before exposed to air,
and the compulsion to jam your tongue in there
to protect it’s sensitive newness.
What if these dreams, so common in our culture, are really a memory of trauma?
A memory of the anxiety that Jack is experiencing right now.
Right now, as he attempts to wrap his mind around the idea that parts of his body can just fall off or that new parts can force their way in.
Somehow we push it down.
We make it normal.
We tell ourselves that a fairy and a shiny new quarter will make it all okay.
The memory lingers.
“Walk forward in a walking position.
Put the bridge of your nose in the
crease of your opponent’s neck.
Make a bridge with your body and
punch away from you and up.”
The moment that my father said those words, I was instantly taken over by a wild feeling of giddy exhilaration.
“The first thing you do in boxing is
put your right hand next to your right cheek.
Put your left hand in front of your face.”
He would stand on the floor and place me on the bed, standing in front of him, so that we faced one another, as equals.
And then it would begin.
Elated swinging arms and gentle jabbing of fists in the tickley belly parts. He would hold me steady with one hand on the small of my back and “jab” my tummy with the other hand until I was more giggling puddle than little girl.
When I’d had enough, he would pull the stabilizing hand out and I would flop down and bounce on the bed, hysterically happy and ready for another round.
My father boxed with the Grand Street Boys when he was a kid. This is not what it sounds like. He is basically the opposite of a tough guy. But, as a boy, he did take several years of boxing lessons at a community center on the Lower East Side.
There is a video of him boxing another little boy on the Perry Como show when he was 11. He is all smiles and skinny arms swinging in wide circles. He is a scrawny little torso hovering over enormous shorts, emerging from which are spindly legs that never stop moving. The constant dancing back and forth clearly fills him with such joy and was probably a perfect outlet for some of that extra energy that kids constantly need to shake off. The gleaming grin never leaves his face, or the faces of anyone else in the clip. The boys are playing at fighting, just throwing themselves at one another for the love of movement and life. The whole thing is accompanied by bouncy strings and you can’t help but be happy when you are watching it.
The joy my father felt in those moments was clearly something that he wanted to give to my brother, sister, and me when we were kids, and so our crazy boxing game was born.
And I do something like this with my boys. We have wrestling matches on my bed where they leap on top of me and try to “pin me”, basically by laying down on top of me and hugging me tightly. I always win– I’ve got 90 pounds on them– and I snuggle-pin them with little effort. We are always overwhelmed with laughter and the warmth of the moment fills the room, making me long for their childhood to last forever, making me squeeze them just a little longer, just a little tighter.
About two years ago, Aaron and I were looking for something new and different to sign Zeke up for and heard some good things about a karate place nearby. It seemed like a fun way to burn off some energy and we hoped it would encourage confidence and focus.
Zeke was beyond adorable in that floppy white uniform and I love watching him punch and knee-kick the air, run around, and shout out the count in Japanese.
Pride warms the dojo as gaggles of parents hold up their phones to capture their little sweeties yelling, “Tetsui!” as they pound their precious little mini- fists downward and count together:
“Ich! Ni! San! Chi! Go!…”
And when they spar, they are like puppies tumbling around the mat. Bodies loose-limbed, all shining eyes and playful punches. When Zeke fights his teachers or a senior student, his cheeks go pink and the absolutely extreme width of his smile makes his whole head resemble an apple split in half. It is a joy to watch them dance around one another, miming a kick with a tap of the tip of the toe, or just brushing their knuckles across their opponent’s chest.
So when Aaron started taking class there too, I had warm feelings about the place and I was eager to support his cheery new hobby. That is, until I attended his first belt test. The first half of the belt test, where the children’s skills were tested, filled me with the same pleasure that it always had, and I was not prepared for the dramatic shift in mood as the adult students took their places on the mat.
All of a sudden the glowing room of parents, cellphones raised, cooing encouragement, transformed into a room where fists are pumped and grunts of excitement echo each time the sickening thud of a solidly landed punch reverberated through the dojo.
Shouts of “Great Job Sweetie!” gave way to bloodthirsty bellows of “Now THAT’s what I’m talking about!” as two solid adults square off against one another.
When Aaron’s turn came I felt sick to my stomach. Every time he or his opponent landed a punch or a kick people in the dojo would shout triumphantly. The salivating anticipation of the fighter’s pain among the spectators seemed to swell my chest making it hard to breathe.
Then Aaron lost his balance when he kicked the other guy, and fell down hard on the mat. This man in black-rimmed glasses standing next to me, barked, “Yes!” in excitement.
I felt ill. “That’s my husband!” I wanted to yell. And I was glad that the boys were playing with their friends in the back of the room and not paying attention. I felt like karate just wasn’t what I’d thought it was. There is nothing heart-warming about watching sweaty men try to make brutal contact with one another, even if they are doing it for fun.
A few months later, determined to be supportive and not a lily-livered spoilsport, I took the boys to watch Aaron fight in a tournament in Newburgh. I truly wanted to stand there and cheer him on and for the boys to be proud of their dad.
But when I saw the red-faced intensity of the people on the sidelines shouting at their family and friends to annihilate the person across from them I began to have real feelings of misgiving. When I looked around the school gym where the tournament was being held and saw lanky, acne-spattered teenage boys, barely able to stay on their feet, weaving, eyes unfocused from hitting their heads too hard, I began to feel that I was in the wrong place entirely.
When Aaron’s match was finally called he was so excited, a boyish smile dominated his whole face and he couldn’t keep still. He kept running and jumping in place, bare feet in constant motion as they stuck out of his gleaming white gi.
And then his opponent walked up and I felt my stomach hit the floor. I was overcome by the desperate need to stretch my smile out as wide as it will go so that no one, certainly not the boys, would be able to detect the horrid trepidation I felt about being stuck in this horrible place.
The guy was young, probably 24, and when I looked at his arm, I saw a prominent USMC tattoo and immediately cast him as a recently discharged veteran from the Middle East who needs an outlet for all of the anger he built up while witnessing the horrors of war. The idea of having to keep my upbeat attitude so that the boys won’t start to feel upset is overwhelming and I was afraid that I was going to cry.
It was then that I thought of this Shel Silverstein poem that I’d always loved.
I will not play at tug o’ war
I’d rather play at hug o’ war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses
And everyone grins
And everyone cuddles
And everyone wins.
This is the game that I thought we were all playing. I thought we were rolling around and laughing and just wrapped up in the playful love of parents and children. I don’t want to know that I am training my sons for actual fighting in a world that is filled with actual violence. I just want to giggle and roll around on the rug.
I have managed to block out most of Aaron’s fight in Newburgh. He didn’t win, but he wasn’t seriously injured either. And our children were not traumatized, but I’ve made only sporadic trips to the dojo since.
Fighting seems fun now, but sprightly violins will eventually give way to intense, pounding percussion and I have never lost my taste for the gentle games of my childhood.
“Walk forward in a walking position.”
Those words still make me smile.
It is just after 4 o’clock in the morning. I know this because I hear my son’s husky voice declare, “Omigod! I can’t believe it’s 4 to the 12!” (Me either. sigh)
He is looking at Aaron’s cell phone, at the clock that dominates the screen when the phone is charging: 4:12. I see his face lit only by the eerie greenish glow of the phone, his hair all bed-heady, his eyes animated and intensely focussed.
I should be annoyed. Sleep is the most precious thing in the life of a parent of young children, and I do not take kindly to being woken up if someone is not puking or if there isn’t, at the very least, a fire.
But Zeke catches my attention with what he says next, melting away any anger that might have been forming.
“Is the north getting cold again Mom?”
We’ve been talking about global warming. We heard a report on the radio about how scientists are struggling to find a way to preserve the polar bear species outside of their quickly disappearing natural habitat without placing them all on public display. The reporter said that, for the first time, it appeared quite possible that we would live in a world without polar bears within his lifetime. Zeke was riveted and concerned. He kept asking me how this could be happening. We watched some YouTube videos of polar bears sloshing through melting ice and swimming aimlessly through endless water, in search of something solid to stand on.
One chilly morning he leapt into my lap, threw his arms around my neck, and exclaimed,
“I have great news Mom! The earth is getting cold again! Look outside! The sky is all gray! I think it’s going to rain!”
He was so exhilarated by this miraculous development, by the extraordinary fact that a horrible tragedy appeared to be reversing course, that there was just no way that I could explain to him that the whole mess was a little more complicated than that. So I just hugged him close, told him I loved him, and made him some breakfast.
This morning, though, the streets still relatively quiet, the street lamps still lit, Zeke’s mind has clearly been buzzing with activity for quite some time.
He speaks quickly, inspired:
“What if I brought a big bucket of ice up to the north? I could pour it in the water and make it all cold again!
“And when that bucket gets empty, I could bring another and another and another.”
Another idea occurs to him, “Or I could make a machine that shoots sticky snow! It could stick the snow to the other snow so that it was all one big thing again! But it wouldn’t stick to the bears! Just to snow, and the bears would have a whole big ice land for their home again!
“It could be my GREATEST INVENTION!”
My voice is thick, hoarse with sleep, and I feel genuinely sad as I say, “I wish you could fix it that way sweetie, but unfortunately the problem is much bigger than that. What will need to happen is for all of the people in the world to change the way that they live and to try and take better care of the earth.”
Zeke looks at me very seriously, his voice is world-weary (at 5) and thoughtful, “Yes. Because many people don’t care about the earth. They are selfish and they only think about themselves and their families.
They don’t realize that THE EARTH IS A LIVING THING!”
“You’re right,” I say. “It’s a very big problem and the grownups spend a lot of time arguing about what to do, when they could be trying to fix things.
Then Zeke fixes his blue eyes steadily on mine and says, with a very adult determination,
“Well, then it just might be up to the boys and girls.”
Lately, every night it’s the same thing:
“Mommy, close the door,” Jack whines, “So the monsters can’t get in.”
I don’t know where this new fear has come from. I can’t put my finger on exactly when it started, or what it is that sparked it. All I know is that now it has become routine to make a show of closing the door securely so that Jack feels secure enough to relax into sleep.
I was lying in my own bed, watching the shadows of the passing cars drift across the ceiling, contemplating Jack’s new fear and whether or not it was worth being concerned about, when in a flash,
I recalled The Big Ooh.
I can still see Zeke laying in our bed, his little hands clutching the blanket tightly, where it was tucked beneath his chin, eyes wide and staring.
“Mommy,” he would say, in a whisper. “I saw The Big Ooh again.”
We live in a building that is right off of Flatbush Avenue, a busy street in Brooklyn, where it is never truly dark or completely quiet. Aaron’s bicycle hangs on a hook near the ceiling and and as the cars rush endlessly by, headlights shine over handlebars and through the spokes of the wheel, creating patterns of light and shadow, which ebb and flow endlessly past.
Zeke watched the shadowy shapes roll across the ceiling night after night, and to him they became something alive:
The Big Ooh.
He was vague on the details of The Big Ooh. He seemed less frightened by her than intrigued. He told us that she had red eyes and that he only saw her at night because during the day she was busy “taking care of her children”.
And, with a jolt, I remembered something else too.
When I was a little girl, there were these “people” that lived under my bed. I wasn’t exactly afraid of them, but I was always very aware of their presence and that awareness made me a little uneasy. I’m not sure if I ever mentioned them to anyone, but I have very vivid memories of lying awake in bed thinking about them and being almost paralyzed by my profound awareness of their presence. I remember taking deep breaths and resolving to be brave enough to hang my head over the side of my bed and peek down at them. It would take me a while to summon the courage, and my glances were always brief and breathless.
They would lie with their backs to me, their stomachs on the floor, heads propped up on their elbows. They were fuzzy and gray; shadowy. They looked as if they were made of fog and hairballs and dust. And I knew they were under there, but I also knew that they would never come out.
My memory of them is as vague as their lazy silhouettes were, but they remain one of the oddest and most exhilarating memories that I have, because my rational adult mind tells me that they couldn’t possibly have been under there. But I still remember them.
I saw them.
And I never had an “Aha” moment where I realized that my overactive imagination was spinning dust bunnies or lost socks into mysterious lethargic beings. Their presence was never explained away, and I can still remember the way they looked, the way I saw them as a child.
I have since asked Zeke about The Big Ooh and he has no memory of her at all. I suppose that whatever Jack imagines is lurking behind the door will fade away too.
And as they grow and their childhood fears disappear, so too will the world where magic is possible. Danger will be all too unavoidably real and even a door that is firmly shut will not make them feel safe.
As their mom, I desperately want to protect them from any and all danger, and to keep them safe within my tight and reassuring grasp.
But there is a part of me that wants them to hold on to the indistinct creatures of the night, somewhere deep inside, even if they can’t really believe in them anymore.
To remember that once, you believed.
That is a gift.